Mister Pip is a novel that contains distinct groups of people who ostracize one another, frequently by pointing to racial divides. Mr. Watts, who is the only white person living in a black village, has difficulty interacting with the townspeople, who are suspicious of his foreign ways. Furthermore, the villagers themselves are torn between two opposing military factions, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (whom they call “redskins,” a racial slur for Papua New Guineans). Mister Pip explores these tensions, ultimately showing that to think of people from different groups or ethnicities as “other” only leads to misunderstanding and conflict.
Jones illustrates that viewing people as “other” is often the result of reductive, narrow-minded thinking. Dolores’s dislike of Mr. Watts is an example of this outlook. Matilda notes her mother’s quick judgment of Mr. Watts, which reduces him to nothing more than his race: “She thought she had Mr. Watts summed up. She could not see what us kids had come to see: a kind man. She only saw a white man. And white men had stolen her husband and my father. White men were to blame for the mine, and the blockade.” Dolores doesn’t give Mr. Watts’s individuality any thought because of what he represents in her mind, while Matilda—who doesn’t approach him as an “other”—sees that he is a “kind man.” Unfortunately, she is unable to change her mother’s mind, and Dolores allows herself to view Mr. Watts as an enemy, prompting her to steal Great Expectations, which sets off a succession of events that leads to both Dolores and Mr. Watts’s death.
Similarly, the rebel soldiers and the “redskins” each promote their own ideas regarding one another. These black-and-white beliefs make it easier for them to cling to their own notions regarding who’s right and who’s wrong. To understand this, it’s helpful to consider the beginnings of the Bougainville Civil War. Many native Bougainvilleans were unhappy that the island’s large copper mine was bringing workers to the island who weren’t Bougainvilleans (particularly workers who were racially different). Eventually, groups of Bougainville rebels attacked the mine in a bid to restore the island’s purity and original way of life. At this point, the Papua New Guinea government deployed the Papua New Guinea Defense Force to protect the mine and the land around it, but the Defense Force soon spread to the rest of the island, waging war on the villages and rebel factions. As such, both sides thought of one another as malicious others: the Bougainvillean rebels saw the Papua New Guinea Defense Force as an invasive oppressor, while the Papua New Guinea Defense Force saw the Bougainvillean rebels as rowdy and lawless guerilla units who didn’t have their own island’s best interests in mind (since they had destroyed the mine). As a result, there was very little empathy and understanding between the two sides, which made it easier for each group to advance only their own interests.
Exploring the thinking of the two armies, Jones shows that enemies are easier to fight when they are reduced to a single opposing viewpoint. The villagers of Bougainville, by contrast, don’t choose sides. Though many resent the “redskins,” they also resent that the rebels attacked the mine and shut it down. Of course, some of them support the rebels—who claim to be fighting for them—but others do not: “Everyone else just wished the fighting would go away, and for the white man to come back and reopen the mine,” Matilda says. By recognizing the benefits of the mine, these villagers exhibit tolerance of outside cultures. Perhaps they aren’t thrilled by the influx of white people and Papua New Guineans that the mine attracts, but they don’t hate their new neighbors. Instead, they focus on the economic benefits of the mine and appear willing to accept the diverse and integrated community it creates. Unfortunately, the mine doesn’t reopen, leaving these culturally tolerant villagers trapped in the middle of a conflict between two sides determined to view one another as evil.
Similar to how many Bougainvilleans embrace the diversity the copper mine introduces to their community, Matilda’s classmate Daniel demonstrates cultural tolerance and perspective when he interacts with Mr. Watts. Rather than assuming he knows everything about his teacher based on the man’s race, he straightforwardly asks, “What is it like to be white?” In doing so, he puts himself in a position to actually learn about somebody from a different race and culture. This question represents a productive open-mindedness when it comes to connecting across racial or social divides, and enables him to successfully exist in the gray area between two opposing cultures. Asking this question makes it impossible for him to simplify Mr. Watts into a stereotypical “other,” instead inviting the man to share parts of his life that Daniel otherwise wouldn’t know or understand. In this way, Jones holds up open-minded communication as a way to avoid turning somebody from another culture (or somebody with different beliefs) into an enemy.
The Other ThemeTracker
The Other Quotes in Mr. Pip
He pulled a piece of rope attached to a trolley on which Mrs. Pop Eye stood. She looked like an ice queen. Nearly every woman on our island had crinkled hair, but Grace had straightened hers. She wore it piled up, and in the absence of a crown her hair did the trick. She looked so proud, as if she had no idea of her own bare feet. […]
Our parents looked away. They would rather stare at a colony of ants moving over a rotting pawpaw. Some stood by with their idle machetes, waiting for the spectacle to pass. For the younger kids the sight consisted only of a white man towing a black woman. […] Us older kids sensed a bigger story. Sometimes we caught a snatch of conversation. Mrs. Watts was as mad as a goose. Mr. Watts was doing penance for an old crime. Or maybe it was the result of a bet. The sight represented a bit of uncertainty in our world, which in every other way knew only sameness.
What I am about to tell results, I think, from our ignorance of the outside world. My mum knew only what the last minister had told her in sermons and conversations. She knew her times tables and the names of some distant capitals. She had heard that man had been to the moon but was inclined not to believe such stories. She did not like boastfulness. She liked even less the thought that she might have been caught out, or made a fool of. She had never left Bougainville.
“I want this to be a place of light,” he said. “No matter what happens.” He paused there for us to digest this.
When our parents spoke of the future we were given to understand it was an improvement on what we knew. For the first time we were hearing that the future was uncertain. And because this had come from someone outside of our lives we were more ready to listen.
He smiled. “Matilda is a nice name, too. Where did you get such a pretty one?” he asked.
I anticipated his question. My dad had worked with Australians up at the mine. They had given him the name Matilda. He had given it to my mum. And she had given it to me. I explained all this.
“A sort of hand-me-down.” Mr. Watts glanced away with the thought. Suddenly he looked gloomy. I don’t know why.
In our village there were those who supported the rebels—my mum included. Though I suspect her support was nourished by the thought of my father in Townsville living what she called a “fat life.” Everyone else just wished the fighting would go away, and for the white man to come back and reopen the mine. These people missed buying things. They missed having money to buy those things. Biscuits, rice, tinned fish, tinned beef, sugar. We were back to eating what our grandparents had—sweet potatoes, fish, chicken, mango, guava, cassava, nuts, and mud crab.
I watched his face and I listened to his voice and I tried to hear how his mind ticked, and what he thought. What was Mr. Watts thinking as our mums and dads, our uncles and aunts, and sometimes an older brother or sister came to share with the class what they knew of the world? He liked to position himself to one side as our visitor delivered their story or anecdote or history.
We always watched Mr. Watts’ face for a sign that what we were hearing was nonsense. His face never gave such a sign. It displayed a respectful interest…
Sometimes as he read we saw him smile privately, leaving us to wonder why, at that particular moment—only to realize yet again that there were parts of Mr. Watts we could not possibly know because of our ignorance of where he’d come from, and to reflect on what he’d given up in order to join Grace on our island.
“I expect another one will grow.”
“So that’s okay,” I said. “Nothing’s lost.”
“Except that particular toenail,” he said. “You could say the same about a house or one’s country. No two are the same. You gain as you lose, and vice versa.” He stared off distantly, as if everything he’d parted with trailed out to sea and over the horizon.
Because for as long as I could remember, Grace Watts was not really included in the village. She lived with a white man, a man whom our parents didn’t especially warm to. It was partly that, and partly the strange sight of her standing in that trolley towed along by Mr. Watts wearing a red clown’s nose. We did not understand the reason for this, we had no idea what it meant, and so it had been convenient to think Mrs. Watts was mad.
I suppose it is possible to be all of these things. To sort of fall out of who you are into another, as well as to journey back to some essential sense of self. We only see what we see. I have no idea of the man June Watts knew. I only know the man who took us kids by the hand and taught us how to reimagine the world, and to see the possibility of change, to welcome it into our lives.